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LEGAL AFFAIRS - How Jeb Bush Suddenly Became Bull Connor LEGAL AFFAIRS - How Jeb Bush Suddenly Became Bull Connor

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LEGAL AFFAIRS - How Jeb Bush Suddenly Became Bull Connor

It was perhaps the biggest mass protest in Florida's history, with 10,000 demonstrators converging on the Capitol in Tallahassee on March 7. Some placards called Florida Gov. Jeb Bush "Jeb Crow." Others said, "Pharaoh Bush, let my people go!" A speaker declared that the governor had taken "the first step towards resegregation."

Rallied by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, Martin Luther King III, Florida's best-known African-American elected officials, and feminist leader Patricia Ireland, the marchers had come in buses from all over the state and beyond. They sang "We Shall Overcome." They chanted, "Down with Bush!" They vowed to vote against Jeb's brother George W. Bush-the one who had visited Bob Jones University. Feminist, Hispanic, and union activists marched with the mostly black crowd.

What had Jeb Bush done to provoke such passion?

He had tried to pre-empt an anti-affirmative action ballot initiative that he deemed "divisive" by coming up with a kinder, gentler alternative that he said would promote diversity even while curtailing race and gender preferences. The ironic result has been to split his state along racial lines, to the detriment of his brother's presidential campaign.

The still-unfolding story of Jeb Bush's "One Florida" initiative, which he announced on Nov. 9, shows how hard it is to stake out the middle ground in the affirmative action wars. Hard-but perhaps not impossible.

In One Florida, Bush seeks to ban overt use of race and gender as factors in admission to the state's 10 public universities, while vowing to increase black and Hispanic enrollment. Bush would accomplish this by guaranteeing admission to the top 20 percent of the graduates of every high school in the state-including mostly black and Hispanic schools-if the students completed the necessary courses. Bush also asked the Legislature for a 43 percent hike in financial aid. He reaffirmed the state's policy of seeking students who have shown promise by overcoming adversity.

At the same time, Bush curtailed, without altogether eliminating, the use of race and gender preferences in state contracting and hiring.

All of this apparently grew out of Bush's concern about the proposed ballot initiative-a sweeping ban on virtually any use of race and gender preferences by state and local governments. This so-called Florida Civil Rights Initiative has been pushed by a Florida group allied with California businessman Ward Connerly, the black conservative who championed similar measures in California and Washington state. Both were adopted, but only after bitter, racially polarizing battles.

The Florida governor wanted no part of any such brawl. It would strain the artful ambiguity about affirmative action in which both Jeb Bush and his brother George W. had long taken refuge. And it would threaten Jeb's modest successes in reaching out to African-Americans. (Hispanics in Florida, who include many conservative Cubans, are supportive of Bush and divided on affirmative action.)

Bush criticized Connerly in early 1999 for trying to start a "war." But polls show that a majority consistently supports the proposed ballot initiative, despite the overwhelming opposition of black leaders. If Connerly's allies get their proposal onto the ballot in November, black people will turn out in force to vote against it. Once at the polls, most will also vote against George W. Bush.

So it is that Jeb Bush's One Florida initiative was widely seen as a bid to take wind from the sails of Connerly and his allies, and to make it harder for them to collect enough signatures to get their initiative onto the ballot. Whatever his motive, Bush's plan initially met with a reasonably favorable reception, except from black politicians and liberals for whom affirmative action is a holy cause. Many editorialists, educators, politicians, and some black leaders saw One Florida as a promising (or at least preferable) alternative to the Connerly initiative.

The Bush plan, and a somewhat similar "top 10 percent" program in George W. Bush's Texas, have special appeal for those of us who have groped for ways to get away from blatant racial double standards and to expand opportunities for disadvantaged students of all races, without causing black and Hispanic admissions to plunge.

To be sure, such hopes for One Florida hinge on an optimistic and unproven assumption: that students who have what it takes to excel at the poorest and weakest high schools will also be able to make it at selective colleges, even though they will arrive with less academic grounding and lower test scores than the middle-class black students who have been the primary beneficiaries of racial preferences.

Among the cautious optimists in November was Democratic state Sen. Daryl Jones, the head of the legislative Black Caucus. He said that while "the proof will be in the pudding a year from now," the Bush plan looked "very good on paper."

But by March 13, the same Daryl Jones was trashing Bush for refusing to drop or amend his plan, and was asserting that "even [Saddam] Hussein and [Slobodan] Milosevic" had been more open to compromise with Jesse Jackson.

What had happened? A determined group of black state legislators, members of Congress, feminists who claimed that One Florida would hurt women, and others-almost all of them Democrats-had methodically pieced together a mass movement to save affirmative action preferences. The NAACP went to court to block the Bush plan. Two black legislators drew the media spotlight by staging a 25-hour sit-in at the lieutenant governor's office. Raucous protests followed at hearings around the state. Al Gore and Bill Bradley weighed in with denunciations. Jackson, understated as always, likened the Bush plan to a "crucifixion." With Bush-bashers massing under the banner of the civil rights movement, people like Daryl Jones turned against the governor's plan without waiting to see whether it would successfully increase diversity.

Four principal factors appear to be driving the often-hyperbolic attacks on a plan advertised as pro-diversity:

First, many black leaders and parents see the Bush plan as a wolf in sheep's clothing that may hurt their children. Some doubt that Bush will keep his promise to increase minority admissions and financial aid, and stress that the plan would depress black admissions to graduate schools. And some fear that, at best, One Florida would help poor students from weak schools at the expense of better-prepared middle-class black students who come from strong schools but do not graduate in the top 20 percent. Importantly, these middle-class students include the children of most of the black community's leaders.

Second, many believe that white skin still confers so many advantages that affirmative action is essential to overcome omnipresent discrimination against even the most prosperous African-Americans. What many whites (and blacks like Ward Connerly) see as unfair racial double standards, many blacks see as leveling the playing field. There is truth in both perspectives.

Third, Jeb Bush announced One Florida so suddenly, and he consulted with black leaders so little, that he invited charges of acting autocratically and arrogantly.

Last but not least came naked partisanship tricked up as a noble cause. As Howard Troxler wrote in the St. Petersburg Times, "The Democrats see that they have a club with which to hit Bush. Democrats, both black and white, are as energized as they have been in years.... They would rather kick Bush, in fact, and lose everything to Connerly in November, than try to find a middle ground to negate Connerly."

Actually, it's far from clear that the Connerly initiative will make it onto this November's ballot. The proposal is tied up in the Florida Supreme Court in a dispute over its wording, and most of the necessary signatures have not yet been collected. If thwarted this year, Connerly and his allies may try again in 2002. That would be more bad news for Jeb Bush, who faces re-election then.

In any event, Bush's move to supplant preferences with "less-divisive" routes to diversity has proven more divisive than the preferences, at least in the short run.

Bush can still hope for vindication in the long run, and for the support of those African-Americans who care more about expanding opportunities for poor kids than perpetuating preferences.

"The plan is working," the governor assured the Florida Legislature in his March 7 State of the State address, as the marchers outside denounced him and his brother. "Fairness and diversity are achieved without pitting one group against another. There is a new energy for minority outreach that is unprecedented."

A lot depends on whether the numbers bear him out.

Stuart Taylor Jr. National Journal

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